Merlino Says He's A Fan Of Lindros `I Want To Clear The Kid. He Did Nothing Wrong.'

Posted: May 31, 1996

He says he's one of the biggest hockey fans in the city.

He says he thinks Eric Lindros is ``the best player in the NHL.''

And, in case anybody cares, he says he lost plenty betting on the Flyers during their dismal playoff run this year.

Joey Merlino, Passyunk Avenue coffee-shop impresario and reputed mob underboss, spoke out yesterday after two days of rumor and innuendo, fanned in large part by sports-talk radio station WIP (610-AM), about an alleged ``relationship'' between himself and the Flyers' captain.

``It's a crime,'' said Merlino, who knows a little bit about that topic. ``I met the guy three times in my whole life.''

What's more, Merlino said, reports that Lindros was a friend of either of his sisters, Maria, 36, or Natalie, 19, are totally off base.

``He's never met my sisters.''

Merlino, 33, said he was disgusted by the hype and frenzy over what he said was a non-story.

``I just want to clear the kid,'' he said. ``He did nothing wrong. Look, they're gonna say and write whatever they want about me, but it's a crime what they're doin' to him. . . . He makes $7 million a year. He don't need this. . . .''

The Flyers, for their part, issued a statement saying they ``will not respond to ridiculous, unfounded charges and innuendo.''

Merlino said he met Lindros about four years ago at the Rock Lobster, a Delaware Avenue nightclub.

He said they crossed paths at Boyd's, the men's store.

And most recently, he said, they were at the Continental, a cocktail lounge at Second and Market Streets.

``Each time, I went up to him and shook his hand,'' Merlino said. ``I'm a big Flyers fan. I think he's the best player in the NHL.''

Merlino said he never asked for, nor was he ever given, anything by the hockey superstar.

``I never got no tickets from him,'' he said of an earlier report that Merlino sat in seats designated for Lindros at a Flyers playoff game. ``I paid for those tickets [at a ticket agency]. . . . They're just trying to ruin his career.''

Merlino, who takes pride in having once been a highly regarded apprentice jockey, said he admired Lindros for his athletic ability and was upset that a passing acquaintance was being blown out of proportion and was tarnishing a young athlete's reputation.

He's also upset that the Flyers didn't make a better run for the Stanley Cup.

``We were laying two to one, and we got killed,'' said an associate who bet with Merlino on the Flyers throughout the Florida series.

A celebrity in his own right, Merlino has seen his name appear in the newspapers nearly as often as the city's sports stars (though not on the sports pages).

He served two years in prison for an armored-truck heist in which more than $350,000 was stolen, and he did a year in prison for a probation violation.

Merlino is also a survivor, having dodged bullets and bombs during two bloody Philadelphia mob wars in which, according to federal authorities, he was marked for death by rival mob bosses Nicodemo ``Little Nicky'' Scarfo and John Stanfa.

Both are now in prison, probably for the rest of their lives.

Joey Merlino, meanwhile, sells coffee and cigars from the Avenue Cafe on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia, where, on most days, groups of young men gather to talk about last night's game or tonight's action.

Just like on WIP.

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